It’s the first week of school here in south Arkansas, but we won’t be posting any “first day of school” pictures on Facebook. We didn’t go back-to-school shopping; there are no new clothes or backpacks or notebooks. I lament that my homeschooled kids miss the exhilarating feeling of the last day of school more than the pomp and ritual of the first day, but it is a little sad that they aren’t sharing the first-day-of-school rite of passage that most kids experience. We will start next week (as it turns out, all the kids are too sick for school today anyway), but it’s a much different experience sitting your five-year-old at the kitchen table for her first day of kindergarten than to put her on the bus to face the world.
The loss of these distinctive experiences and milestones are just some of the costs of homeschooling. In my last post, I wrote about what went into our decision to homeschool in our small town setting. This decision has not come without cost. It’s been difficult at times, and we have questioned often whether we are really doing the right thing for our son, who is entering fourth grade, and now our older daughter, who is starting kindergarten.
Some of the costs of homeschooling are true for any setting, and I’m not just talking about the cost of curriculum. It’s the mom who doesn’t get to send her kids off to school and have time to herself. It’s the blurring of the line between teacher and parent. It’s the frustration that can take place in a marriage due to the inevitably unbalanced division of responsibility. It’s the loss of competition with classmates that motivates some kids to keep up or excel (and causes others to wither). It’s the loss of interaction with peers. We have felt all of these costs, and they are substantial. But for the purposes of this blog, I want to focus on four questions parents who minister in a small-town setting should ask once they make the decision to homeschool.
What message are you communicating by keeping your kids out of public school? In a small town, people see and evaluate the decisions you make. We made the decision to homeschool in the midst of a crisis in our local school district that ultimately led to its closure. It was a multifaceted problem, but at the center of it all was low enrollment. There were times where I was asked to participate in efforts to save our schools, when we had declined to enroll our own son. At the surface, we were part of the problem. The part that we were most concerned about, though, was the prevailing narrative for why the enrollment was down, which was that the white families in town had all pulled their kids out of the schools. We really wrestled with this issue, and we might have made a different decision if not for the birthday cut-off that kept Joseph from being able to start kindergarten when he was ready. By keeping him out of the school, we needed to be even more intentional about welcoming all kinds of kids into our church and into our home.
How will you be involved in the community if you are not involved in the school system? One of the easiest avenues of community involvement is through the schools, but those avenues are not as open (or open at all) if you don’t have kids enrolled in the schools. Now that the schools are closed here and the town’s kids are going to several different school districts, it’s not as much an issue of an opportunity lost, but we still must intentionally be involved in the community. Whether your small town has a school district or not, a homeschooling parent needs to find ways to demonstrate concern and love for the community. I have been able to be involved in the chamber of commerce here since I have been here, and that has provided some opportunity, but we need to be looking for more. It’s a matter of caring about the things your town cares about, supporting those things, and then even trying to lead the way and create opportunities for the people of the community to come together as well.
How will your kids find friends and develop social skills? The stereotype of the homeschooler with no social skills illustrates the danger of a child growing up insulated from people outside of their family and a very tight circle of others. This problem is even more pronounced in a small town setting. Your church group is small. The opportunities for homeschool co-ops are limited or remote from where you live. The kids with whom they play sports or take music classes are often from different towns, as well. It’s a real struggle for our kids to meet and connect with good friends their own age. It’s heartbreaking sometimes, and it is one thing that makes us reevaluate every year whether homeschooling is still the best option.
How will your kids develop relationships with non-Christians? As parents, there is a desire to shelter your kids from hurtful influences. That desire is certainly part of any parent’s decision to homeschool. But we are a people on a mission, assigned to an outpost in a world that isn’t our home. Our outpost is in this small town called Stephens. We need to teach our children to be on mission with us. Eventually, I think that will mean sending them into the public school. But for now, we still need to encourage them to develop relationships with kids who are different from them, to learn to treat people with the compassion and kindness of Christ, and to be concerned about the eternal needs of people.
Taking on the responsibility of homeschooling is a pretty daunting task for a pastor’s family, and doing it in a small town doesn’t make it any easier. These challenges are not easy, and any pastoral family who chooses this path will have to seek the Lord’s guidance on how to answer these questions for themselves. For now, we believe that God has included this task as a part of our calling, so even though they are missing the feeling of heading off for a new year with a new haircut, new shoes, and a new Trapper Keeper, with God’s guidance, it’s going to be a great year.